Marion Dunn & Her Boxing Diaries
By Chris Akers
Speaking to Marion Dunn, her enthusiasm for boxing coruscates through the interview. Her interest in technique, tactics as well as the socio-political and historical side of the sport is in evidence during our chat, as we talked about her book The Boxing Diaries.
The book tells her story about how she first entered a boxing gym in her early 50s as a way of getting fit. Active throughout her life, choosing to start boxing at that age seems peculiar. Yet as she explains, she came across her boxing gym by accident.
“I had a period of studying and working and have got quite unfit in the run-up to being 50,” she explains. “I really didn’t like it, because I played quite a lot of outdoor sport when I was younger and was used to being quite fit. And I kind of thought ‘I’ve got to do something now.’ To be honest it was a sense of desperation. It was like, ‘Use it to lose it right now or be unfit for middle age and older life.’ I just googled ‘Cheap gyms in my local town.’ It was a place that I thought had a weight room open to the public.
“So I made a brief inquiry, went along, and to my surprise, it was a youth club which ran a whole series of sports for youth and separate sessions for adults. So I turned up and it was a traditional old school boxing gym, with painted brick walls and lino on the floor. The kids were just finishing their boxing session with one of the boxing coaches. And I thought ‘Oh! I was expecting that.’ But I gave it a go. Why not?
“I got inside the gym and found it very hard. The coach was really encouraging, and he said to me, ‘How fit do you think you are?’ I sort of embellish the truth and said that I do a reasonable amount of walking in the hills. The truth was that I was doing a bit but not very much. He just looked at me and said, ‘I’ll ask you again in six weeks!’”
For the first six weeks, Marion was going to the gym regularly. Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Attending on those days without fail, loving the benefits an improved level of fitness gave her, no doubt helped by the immediate camaraderie she felt from the beginning.
“I was made to feel very welcome right from the start. At first, it was just ordinary fitness training. There were only a few of us in the gym at that time and people weren’t doing that much sparring, just because there weren’t people around you who particularly wanted to do that. And also, that was way off my radar at that point. I was just concentrating on getting fit.”
That camaraderie is a feeling Marion had when she when potholing when she was younger. Yet amongst the tsk tsk of people’s breath when they hit the bags, the whipping sounds of ropes been skipped and the sweat that hung more in the air the longer each session when on, there were other factors amongst the participants that surprised her and were different to the times she went potholing, but ultimately had a positive effect.
“When I was younger I did a lot of potholing, going underground and exploring caves. At times it was objectively quite dangerous. It bound us together as a group. And I found the same kind of camaraderie in boxing. But the thing that was a revelation to me was how encouraging people were. Things like potholing people are encouraging, but the scenario’s totally different. You’re not particularly in a position to encourage others. You’re following each other down a route. You’re moving quite independently through space.
“Whereas the thing that struck me in the boxing gym more than anything, was the camaraderie, people being interested in what you were going, trying to improve your shots. It took me ages to learn the basics. Eventually, I could throw a jab and a right hand and not a bad left hook now. But the shot I always wanted to throw were body shot hooks, but I found those very difficult. Although I could throw them reasonably well on the bag, I could never throw them fast enough in the ring and that was always a bit of a frustration to me. But people are always very willing to give advice. I found that brilliant, as I’ve never had a coach at anything before. And that was a revelation to me as well. So, in a really good way, the coach got inside my head. The coach when I first went to the gym left and someone else took over, and the coach that I’ve currently got, he’s an ex-Army championship boxer in his 50s. You can tell, because of his personality and his military background, that he can size people up well. And sometimes I felt he could look inside my head. To have someone else goal setting for you in a sporting situation, I never really had that before and I found it a revelation and very encouraging.
Despite been active when she was younger, had she never had any major coaching before?
“It’s not that people were unfriendly or unhelpful, it was just the situation of the sport that I was immersed in, it doesn’t lend itself to that same kind of coaching,” she explains.
“I did quite a bit of rock climbing at one point and in a way, it’s quite easy to be coached by your peers there. You can see each other and you’re out in the open air. People are similarly quite encouraging. But when I was in my 20s and 30s, I did a lot of exploring caves underground in Yorkshire, across the UK and I also went aboard to the Alps. In a way, similar situations that you’re in are so extreme. You’re just concentrating on getting yourself through space. You haven’t got the time to stand and reflect. You’re concerned about jumping over that next big hold in front of you or attaching yourself to a rope and swinging across something. It doesn’t lend itself to that in a way. It wasn’t that people weren’t friendly or not encouraging, it was just a different situation.
“I kind of felt that even though I’m not a good technical boxer, and would never say I was, I felt at home in the boxing gym, possibly in a way that I hadn’t felt in other sporting situations that I’d been in. I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. But I just got comfortable there.”
Describing the shots that she became proficient at, and her eagerness to develop her body shots, it’s apparent how the technical side of the sport fascinates her. Indeed, reading the book, I was surprised at how quickly the language of what Marion did in the boxing ring became very technical, in particular regarding footwork and how to throw a jab is very technical very quickly. Even though she admits in the book that she struggled to carry out various aspects of boxing technique, cognitively she was aware of what was required technically, though carrying out the correct technical motion was another challenge she was determined to overcome.
“I think in my head, I knew what I had to do. I’ve got a science background. I’ve worked in laboratories a lot and I think that I‘m quite analytical in the way that I think. So I think I picked up pretty quickly what I was supposed to be doing in my head and analysed the moves. But actually, doing it was another matter. It took me such a long time. I don’t think I have a natural aptitude for boxing or similar sorts of things. I think I’m a bit of a grafter. Initially, I found it difficult to visualise when I was standing in relation to somebody else. It took me a long time to even get into a boxing stance that felt right. People often say it takes a long time to find a stance you feel comfortable in and I found that to be the case.
“But interestingly, once I started to pick it up a bit, I think my rate of learning increase. So over the first three to four months, I found everything very difficult to pick up. But when it got to four, five, six months, a few things began to click and I learned about bringing the power up from the floor when throwing your jab, realising that you box with your whole body and not just throwing your arms around. You are transferring the weight to get some power into your shots. So that was quite interesting.”
Marion even sees similarities between boxing training and a prime-time Saturday night show in the UK.
“I kind of feel that there are slight parallels with Strictly Come Dancing, where you see people through a very intense period of training transformed by it. You can see the transformation before your eyes and you can see, because they are doing such intensive training, it’s beginning to click together in their heads. I think my experience was a bit like that.”
At this point, Marion talks about reading books by Jack Dempsey and Joe Frazier, which discuss advice on technique and tactics in the ring, and how they were a source of knowledge. Though the interview is taking place on the phone, I can imagine her eyes widening as she discusses with me the advice both boxers state in their text, such is the obvious zest in her voice as she describes how the books explain the biomechanics behind throwing each shot. There were other boxers who she watched and thought ‘I want to learn how to throw the jab like this boxer.’
“Yeah there were!” she laughs. “I have to be honest and say I’d love to follow boxing a lot more than I do. But I just don’t have the time. So I tend to concentrate on my training and I don’t spend as much time as I’d like watching. But the style of boxing that I like, I won’t say I aspire to it because it would be impossible for me to get anywhere near it, but I like the boxers who have a neat economical style.”
A future Hall Of Famer typifies the economic style that Marion is talking about.
“One of my favourite boxers to watch is Gennady Golovkin, as he’s just got absolute perfect timing. His boxing is really simple. Simple in the sense that he’s just got the basics right. His jab is fantastic. His timing is perfect. He doesn’t run around the ring. It’s just stylish boxing. That’s certainly the kind of boxing that I like to watch. I’m not so keen on the big haymaker swings. I like watching good boxing defence, as that’s something I find particularly difficult.
“I’m doing to say something a bit controversial, but I wish boxers would actually get points for defending, as it’s so important. And I think that would be a great change to boxing, to have boxers get points for really slick defence, as I love watching that.”
Though Marion appreciates the technical aspect of boxing, one thing she found difficult to grasp during sparring sessions, was her coach’s quadruple jab. She would be constantly on the receiving end of it and as she explains, she would be ‘like a sitting duck.’
“I had my hands up and I could defend myself from it, and then there would be another quadruple jab. He would be so fast, I wouldn’t have moved. I would still be in the same position, just taking it. I got so frustrated by that.”
To combat this, she went to a different boxing gym to get a little bit of extra training, hoping to unlock previously unknown knowledge that would help her evade her coach’s piston-like jabs.
“They put the idea into my head, just to put some distance between you and your aggressor and take control of the situation that way. So that’s what I very much tried to do.
“So to start with, I was just walking forward and onto punches. I ended up having quite a good jab, so I was determined to get my jab through all the time. But that was one of the ways I could take control of the fight. I began to learn simple things about strategy and I found learning those basic things quite interesting.”
The comfort she felt in sessions was extended to using them as a way to release any frustrations she had.
“Oh totally. I found that. I think that any sport, you kind of taken out of yourself almost, has a similar effect. I found when I was going rock climbing or potholing, it blocked out daily life. It’s an escape because you’re in the moment. In that sense, it’s a stress buster because it’s an escape from everyday life.
“I think with boxing, you are very much in the moment. But I think whether you like it or not, we all have an element of aggression in us that is often not expressed in daily life and I found boxing a wonderful antidote to any stress.”
But for six months, she was unable to do any boxing after injuring her back.
“Basically when I first started trying to learn to box, I was very enthusiastic and I threw myself into it. What I didn’t realise was that I was doing a lot of repetitive movements like throwing a jab, and I got a back strain from doing that. Part of my job I do quite a bit of lifting as well, so I was probably quite prone to that sort of thing. But I wasn’t balancing it up by doing other things like yoga. It was just a bit of naivety on my part.
“It was incredibly painful. I went to a number of physios and no one got to the bottom of it. In the end, I went to a doctor who specialised in rotational injuries and to some extent boxing. I hobbled into the surgery and explained my predicament. He started looked up from his table. He saw me shamble in and he said ‘You’re a boxer and you use your jab too much.’ I thought ‘Yes, perhaps I am!’
“To cut a long story short, he referred me to an excellent sports physio, who gave me a series of exercises to do. My back was absolutely fine after that, though it took about three to four months to get it right. It was a lesson to me to balance up some of the things I was doing with other exercises and I think looking back at it, I probably didn’t have sufficient core strength at the start to do some of the demanding things that I was trying to get my body to do. With the benefit of yoga and pilates twice a week, my back is fine.
“I was miserable. I couldn’t wait to get back. But the GP said to me quite rightly that it will take some time. So think about a 4-6 month timescale. And I did and it was all fine and I went back.”
Out injured and without the solace of the gym, Marion had to find other ways to occupy her mind while her body healed.
“I did quite a lot of reading over that time and also I live in the southern Yorkshire Dales, which is a nice part of the world. So I was able to go out walking, and I found that did my back good. I wasn’t bored as such, just really missing the boxing gym.”
As soon as she was able to, Marion returned to the gym. However, one thing I noticed while reading the book, was that there seemed to be a danger of the club closing, as the number of people attending the club seemed to dwindle. That seems to be a parallel that many gyms across the country have faced, due to the current situation.
“It was very variable, and I think in the past, the club had had quite a history,” explains Marion. “Going back to the 40s, they even had a British champion. There were up and downs. One thing I noticed was the age groups that people were. We had quite a lot of younger adults in their 20s or late teens. Then there was a massive gap where I imagine there were people who were potentially being parents away from the gym. Then there was the older contingent, of which I was part.
“So I felt strongly that more had to be done to encourage and provide people with the opportunity when they were in their 30s and 40s, to do some sport or take it up, particularly people who have children. I noticed that there were a lot of men and women, who would turn up to pick their kids up after the youth boxing session, who would have liked to join us in the adult gym, but they couldn’t as there was no creche nor homework club. So it wasn’t possible for them to participate and I felt that was a real shame. I think one of the reasons the numbers fluctuated was at certain times we had people in that age group and then at other times, probably due to parental responsibilities, they went away again for quite long periods.”
Even people from other sports attended now and then, finding something extra in the gym environment.
“We had quite a lot of footballers who appeared at the boxing gym and they only came in intermittently mainly came in as they were injured so much from playing football. Boxing sometimes gets a bad press. But based on what I’ve seen, it looked like football was far more dangerous!” she laughs.
“So the numbers fluctuated quite a lot due to people playing other sports as well and sometimes getting injured doing those other sports. So the club did have its ups and downs and on occasions, we would be down to two people. At other times, we might have 15 or 16. On average we would have seven or eight people who used to regularly turn up.
As she next explains, having attending sessions at the gym for several years, what prompted her to write the book were the logs she would write, about what she was taught. These started to be mixed in with what was happening at home.
“The really funny thing is that I never intended on writing a book. I began to keep a diary, just a training diary, just to remember the shots and everything else that I’d been taught, and try and write them down in a logical way. Then what happened is that I began to add in little stories and anecdotes of what would happen in the gym that night. And then I suppose, without really realising it, I started adding other things such as things that gone on at home.
“After a couple of years of doing this, I realised I had this document which was about 80,000 words long. And I thought ‘Perhaps I’ve got the makings of a book here.’ Never really intentionally set out to write a book. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I really didn’t. It was the enthusiasm that I felt for boxing that propelled me into writing about it. I wanted to show what it was really like, as I felt in the media it was getting a bad press. And I wanted to show what it was like to train in an ordinary boxing gym. And how fantastic. I suppose that was my motivation for writing the book. “
While people have praised the book, some people have questioned why Marion attends a boxing gym in the first place.
“People have very little understanding of what training in a boxing gym was really like, especially at the level I was doing it. I think they imagine that every night I was fighting 12 rounders with Mike Tyson! The reality of course was very different.
“I think with a lack of understanding as to what was involved, my brother-in-law told me I was having a mid-life crisis, and I wasn’t at all. I was just really enjoying the boxing. It was that simple. In general, I think that people were encouraging but they didn’t understand it. So it was quite hard for the public to see how I became attracted to it. In the book, I wanted to set the record straight and tell it how it is. That’s really what I wanted to do.”
Now with the boxing written and receiving praise, there is the question of how much further Marion wants to take her interest in boxing. There is certainly the desire to attend more boxing shows once restrictions are lifted.
“I think what I’d like to do, at the moment I’m still working full time, so as the years roll on perhaps I’ll get to working part-time and maybe devote a bit more time to it. But really my goal is to maintain a reasonable level of personal fitness. And just enjoy it. And just try and improve my technical skills purely for their own sake.
“One of the things I did back in 2015, and I was meant to do again but never got round to doing it, is I was meant to watch the England Amateur boxing finals in Liverpool. I enjoyed that and found it inspirational. I would like to go to more boxing matches. truthfully probably the amateur ones, and just see what people are up to. I think as well when you get to my sort of age, you have to be realistic. I don’t mean negative but you have to be realistic about what you can achieve. I’m never going to be fast on my feet, probably due to my age. So I suppose what still interests me about it, is trying to learn those little quirks or tricks almost, in the boxing ring, to try and improve my skills in areas where I can improve. I suppose that’s what I’m interested in doing.”
This interview lasted 45 minutes. Yet we talk for over an hour more about all aspects of the sport. About technique. About the social benefits of the sport. Of how the sport acts as a reflective timeline to the political and sociological events of each era. About the latest documentaries and articles on the sport. Of how Marion wants the book to inspire people to do what they want, regardless of age and gender.
Her thirst for knowledge about the sport and the benefits that she had obtained from it is an example of how the sport, which too often gets negative press, can benefit people in all walks of life in all sorts of ways.
The Boxing Diaries by Marion Dunn is out now, published by Saraband Books.